Camping on the Pacific Coast Highway

Dave Rumberg is back to share his latest Pacific Coast Highway adventure with his family. Learn all about his story as well as his favorite places to camp & gear to take.

View of sun shining on the horizon of the ocean.

August of 2020 was my 50th birthday. I had grand plans to travel to a tropical destination halfway around the world, unplugging with my family and soaking in the sun, sand and waves. It was meant to be a special trip, but COVID-19 had other plans for me. I was lucky enough to get refunded, but now I had to figure out a new way to memorialize a milestone birthday. If I wanted to find some way to make a special trip happen, I had to simplify and think more locally. This is my story of adaptation, sharing and rediscovery.

Turning 50 is an achievement worth celebrating, and I found myself in a similar place as others trying to figure out how to celebrate an important event in this time of social distancing, closed venues, among other restrictions that make it difficult to gather or travel. Thumbing through a stack of coffee table books, it hit me when I picked a book called “California Guide To Coastal Camping & Surf Spots” by K.C. Brim. It had everything I needed to know about camping along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). What could be better than sharing an adventure with my 13-year-old daughter driving the PCH, surfing, and camping at some of my favorite places?

The PCH and the many magical places it holds has a special place in my heart. I feel at home, renewed, and alive when I’m driving along this famous roadway. Traveling this road with my Uncle Joe back in 1977 has to be my earliest memory of the PCH. I was around 7 years old and he was driving a rugged old Porsche 356. It was a very tough time in my life having lost my Dad in a military plane accident. The quiet time sitting in the passenger seat, windows open watching the coast pass by was the solace I needed. No one asked me how I was feeling. I was simply present in the moment, allowing the coastal air to wash over me mile after mile, soaking up and washing away all of my negative energy.

Camping along the PCH has certainly changed over the years. Back in the 70’s, My uncle and I simply rolled out our sleeping bags on the ground, sometimes right on the side of the highway in a pull out. Back then you could simply jump in your car with minimal supplies, drive until you were tired or had reached wherever you wanted to go, and you could easily find a pullout or campground with open campsites. Everything was first come first serve, because it could be that way. There were plenty of roadside diners or cafes to grab a meal before settling down or heading out.

It is much different today. For one, I have a family, which requires a bit more certainty and safety. There are also a lot more people wanting to explore the coast. Campgrounds are fully booked 6 months or more in advance and camping at a pullout is highly discouraged by the CHP. It became pretty clear that I absolutely needed to plan out my trip, which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me, since it kinda took the spontaneity out of it.

Most campsites along the PCH can be booked at either California State Parks & Recreation.Gov. I also used the Santa Barbara County Parks website. In my case, I generally knew where I wanted to go, I just needed to figure out the best way to reserve the campsites. It took some time, but I was able to successfully weave together different campsites to make up a full week.

Although the planning was a bit of a drag, the level of comfort and convenience I was able to put together for this car camping trip really outshone what I remember from '77. I started out with the 2 Person Deluxe Car Camping Rental Package from Sports Basement. The curated selection of gear was really well-thought-out and served me well (and I'm not just saying that because I work here, I promise). I especially liked having the oversized tent - if you're not carrying it on your back, why not go for extra space? If you have your own gear, I would check what you have against Sports Basement’s list, and of course if you're missing anything, any of the individual items can be rented.

A sports-brella and chair with two Yeti Coolers on the beach.

I did adjust my own equipment list. I own two Yeti Tundra 65 coolers (which can be rented) and they're just so nice to have. They keep food cold without continually needing to feed them ice, and they were great to have on hand during the power outages last year. When full, each cooler is about the limit of what I can carry, while also fitting nicely in bear boxes. I reserved one cooler for meats and stuff I didn’t need to access often, and the ice lasted all week. The other cooler had drinks and other snacks and certainly went through ice much faster.

We started our trip heading South on Hwy 101, skipping the most dramatic stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway and saving it for our drive home. At San Luis Obisbo, Hwy 101 turns into the PCH as you crest a small pass that drops you into Pismo Beach. Our first destination was Jalama Beach, a very small Santa Barbara County park lost in between the Vandenberg Air Force Base and a huge swath of private land called Cojo Ranch. It's one of my favorite hidden places along the PCH and I couldn’t wait to introduce it to my daughter. From the campground heading south on the beach, the open beach landscape quickly gives way to a long stretch of cliffs, rocks, sand, and tide pools.

On our first morning my daughter and I took a long walk along these cliffs until it became impassable, giving way to a surf spot called Tarantulas. The walk brought back memories of my trip with my uncle, a decorated Vietnam war veteran who was dealing with his own demons back then. Somehow my uncle knew that by taking me on long walks in the early morning, he was teaching me how to build coping skills. The past would always be there, but the walk in the morning was full of potential. My daughter put up a little fight getting up early, as I’m sure I did with my uncle, but afterwards she was brimming with satisfaction having had a good surf session. The beach was a little windy during the middle of the day which made a perfect excuse to work in an afternoon nap. Jalamas was definitely a nice way to start the trip.

Dave and his daughter walking towards the surf on a beach.

It might've been early and it might've been chilly, but the beauty of Jalarnas (and probably the 4/3 O’Neill Epic suits we were wearing) made it all worth it.

South from Jalama Beach we hit Santa Barbara, and found a great fruit stand with "the most perfect avocados ever" according to my daughter. We made our way to an undeveloped stretch of land and beach in Los Angeles County called Leo Carrillo State Beach. The campground was nestled into a little valley with trees and shrubs and loads of surfing families. This was the first time my daughter surfed a true SoCal point break. The water was clear and inviting and the surf was super mellow and perfect for our longboards. There was a bit more of a crowd out at the main peak and it was neat to see my daughter learn to navigate a proper crowded point break. 

Our next destination took us deeper into Southern California to the even warmer water (so warm we just wore O’Neill Reactor full zip jackets over our swimsuits instead of wetsuits) of the famous San Onofrey State Beach. I was excited to get there because our campsite was right on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. We surfed into the late evening, watching the sun set out over the Pacific, and we were lucky enough to have a pod of dolphins swimming around and playing in the waves. 

Heading towards home we took Hwy 5 speeding through the sprawl of SoCal and cut back towards the ocean at San Luis Obispo. This time, we headed North on the most famous stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. This is the part of the coastline that most affected me on my trip with my Uncle Joe, and the reason I saved this part of the trip to celebrate my actual birthday. We stayed at the Plaskett Creek Campground which sits at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains in the Los Padres National Forest. This is one of my all time favorite places along the PCH. The water is crystal clear, whales can be seen breaching out on the horizon, and the beaches are dotted with jade. This campground is one of the few places you can get to the water along this rugged stretch of coastline. We filled my Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 (highly recommend) with drinks and food for the day and hiked down to the beach.

Surf boards and Yeti Hopper Backflip on the beach.

The surf was just so, so good. We had a proper ground swell, light wind, and sun. There was a lot of water moving around and I was very impressed that my daughter made it out. Sitting out in the line up in the clear water with my daughter looking up at the mountains, a rush of gratitude came over me. I was thankful for my Uncle Joe for knowing what I needed way back when and introducing me to the magical places along the PCH. Thankful that my daughter now shares a common bond and love for the ocean and the PCH. And I was especially thankful for the health of myself and my family. I could not imagine a better way to have spent my 50th birthday.

Dave's daughter with her surfboard

1 comment

  • Ivar Elle says...

    Thanks for sharing. I’m going to look up those camping spots. I’m a dad with a 15 year old daughter and the my challenges these days are finding things we can do together, we’re not surfers. Just finished a backpacking 3 day to Rancheria Falls at Hetch Hetchy. Worth the 7 mile trek in. Emerald green pool and waterfalls. Great birthday spot. Maybe your 51st! If I knew how to send photos I would…. old guy here

    On August 24, 2020

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